top of page
  • Writer's picturePetra

Temporal Discounting in ADHD: The "Now" Versus "Not Now" Dilemma

The concept of time can be challenging for people with ADHD. Unlike the conventional understanding of time as a linear progression, those with ADHD often experience it in a more immediate, present-focused manner, which I have written about before in my blog about time blindness. Difficulties with time can lead to a tendency to chose behaviours with positive short term consequences, rather than delaying gratification for larger rewards in the future. This phenomenon, known as temporal (time) discounting, can underlie some familiar ADHD difficulties such as procrastination and impulsivity.


Understanding Temporal Discounting

Temporal discounting, refers to the tendency for people to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards. This psychological phenomenon highlights how people often prefer to receive a smaller but immediate gain, rather than wait for a larger benefit in the future. The principle behind temporal discounting is rooted in the idea that the perceived value of a reward decreases the further away it is in time. This concept is very important for understanding decision-making processes, especially in situations where choices involve trade-offs between immediate pleasure and long-term benefits.


The steepness of temporal discounting varies greatly between individuals, influencing behavior and decision-making in profound ways. As I'm sure you've probably guessed, this is an particular hurdle for people with ADHD, and a number of research studies have found that higher levels of hyperactive and impulsive symptoms make for steeper temporal discounting in adults, children, and adolescents (you can find links to a sample of research studies at the end of this post).


A higher rate of discounting is often associated with impulsive behavior, where immediate gratification is consistently preferred over more significant, delayed rewards. This tendency can impact an individual's life significantly, affecting financial stability, health, and personal relationships. For many adults with ADHD, the "now" is tangibly real and compelling, while "not now" is abstract and less motivating. Strategies to reduce temporal discounting might include enhancing awareness of future consequences, setting clear goals, and creating environments that encourage delayed gratification. Some situations where this may apply, and suggested strategies are shared below.


Health and Self-Care

Activities like exercising, eating healthily, getting enough sleep, or dental care might be neglected in favor of more immediately rewarding but less healthy options. This can extend to decisions about alcohol and drug use. The benefits of a healthy lifestyle are typically long-term and thus fall into the "not now" category, making them less compelling and less motivating.

Strategies:

  • Use body-doubling to engage in exercise with a friend to increase motivation to attend.

  • Use health tracking apps that provide immediate feedback and rewards for healthy behaviours to enhance the immediate gratification of self-care activities.

  • See my blog post on regular eating, exercise, and sleep

Educational and Career Goals

Long-term educational and career objectives can be daunting for individuals dealing with steep temporal discounting. I've said to many a client that tertiary education is an extremely challenging undertaking for many with ADHD. The effort required "now" for a reward that is perceived to be in the distant future (three or more years away) can lead to procrastination or a lack of motivation in pursuing further education or career advancement.

Strategies:

  • Break down long-term goals into smaller, actionable steps with immediate short-term rewards for each milestone achieved.

  • Visualise career and educational goals using timelines to make the future benefits feel more immediate and concrete to motivate behaviour in the present.

  • See my blog post on thriving at university with ADHD.


Financial Management

Financial decisions are a prime example of the struggle between immediate satisfaction and future well-being, and choosing whether to receive a sum of money now, or a larger sum in the future is a paradigm often used in experiments measuring temporal discounting. Many people with ADHD find it challenging to save money or invest in long-term financial plans. The immediate pleasure of spending money "now" often outweighs the abstract concept of financial security "not now."

Strategies:

  • Automate savings to transfer a portion of income directly into a savings account, making the process of saving feel less like a conscious sacrifice of immediate resources.

  • Make use of retirement savings plans, like Kiwisaver.

  • Use budgeting apps that provide immediate feedback and visual representations of financial goals to make the future benefits of saving more tangible.

  • See my blog posts on transforming financial habits, and saving for retirement.

Procrastination

Procrastination is a stark manifestation of the "now" versus "not now" challenge. Tasks that are not immediately rewarding or that seem overwhelming are often postponed. The immediate discomfort of starting a task is more potent than the abstract idea of future negative consequences of delaying (until those consequences get close enough to increase anxiety that leads to action).

Strategies:

  • Implement time management techniques, such as the Pomodoro Technique, to make tasks feel more immediate and manageable.

  • Find a way to set deadlines for the task, or even parts of the task, to allow for engagement and completion.

Task Shifting

Task shifting, or the ability to switch smoothly from one activity to another, can be problematic when the "now" is always more engaging than the "not now." This can make it difficult to leave a task that is currently engaging, even if another task is more pressing.

Strategies:

  • Use alarms or timers to signal when it's time, or almost time, to shift tasks.

  • Plan for transitions between tasks, allowing time to mentally prepare for the switch.

Arriving Late

Punctuality can be challenging when the concept of "now" overshadows future planning. The immediate moment often takes precedence over preparing to leave on time, leading to lateness.

Strategies:

  • Set multiple alarms with escalating urgency as the departure time approaches.

  • Prepare essentials the night before to reduce last-minute rushes and check on likely transit times using Google maps (you can program in the time of the day you will be travelling to increase accuracy).

Meta-Techniques

A meta-technique for temporal discounting is to deliberately bring the consequences of actions to mind. This can significantly enhance decision-making in the present where the longer-term consequences are often glossed over completely. This technique involves consciously pausing to consider the future outcomes of one’s choices "now," making the abstract consequences more tangible and immediate. When the potential future repercussions of today’s actions are vividly envisioned, it bridges the gap between the "now" and "not now," helping to illuminate the long-term benefits or drawbacks of a decision. For example, a person wanting to save money for a goal could remind themselves, when a spending opportunity arrives, about how much they want the future object, and how much longer it would take to save for it if they spend the money they have saved now.


This mental practice encourages a more balanced perspective, where the allure of immediate gratification is weighed against the genuine value of delayed rewards or punishments. By making a habit of reflecting on the potential outcomes before acting, people can make choices that align more closely with their long-term goals and well-being, fostering a more thoughtful and forward-thinking approach to daily decisions.


Another meta-technique makes use of implementation intentions. Implementation intentions are a self-regulation strategy that involves pre-planning how to act in a given situation to achieve a specific goal. This approach transforms abstract goals into concrete action plans by linking anticipated situations with goal-directed behaviours. The method typically follows an "if-then" format, where "if" specifies the situation or cue, and "then" outlines the action to be taken. For example, if the goal is to increase physical activity, one might use an implementation intention such as, "If it is 7:00 am on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday then I will go for a 30-minute walk." This strategy works best if the rules are quite specific, including a day of the week and a time, rather than a vague "I will try to go walking this week".


I use implementation intentions regularly when collaboratively devising homework lists for my therapy clients. Using automated calendar reminders can be a useful way to prompt these behaviours, and sometimes I ask clients to enter reminders in their phone before they leave the therapy room.


Below are a sample of research studies that have found steeper rates of temporal discounting in ADHD versus control samples:


Below are some articles on aspects of time management and temporal discounting:


And here's a one-hour webinar:


And a short informative video by ADHD expert Dr Russell Barkley:



109 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page